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You Need to Hear This

Homemade Vinyl: A History Of The Vanity Disc

We spoke to the guy who has been trawling America for records no one knew existed.

by sam wolfson
25 April 2013, 11:36am

We live in a time where any chump with half a brain cell can release their “music” to the world. Music production and distribution are so cheap that even your dad could record 12 different versions of him gurgling the Have I Got News For You theme tune, burn them onto a CD, print a sleeve he created on Photobooth and get it released on Fierce Panda. It’s even worse on YouTube, where millions of people armed only with a webcam, an acoustic guitar and some lyrical clichés about trainers and first dates can legitimately call themselves recording artists.

It wasn’t always like this though – in 1960BC (before computers) it was next to impossible to distribute your own music. Without some kind of record deal, your only options were to perform your songs live or invest time, effort and a lot of money into getting your own vinyl pressed.

Small presses doing runs of around 500 records for bands that could cough up the cash became a cottage industry in the US. There are now thousands of these Vanity pressings (so called because they were paid for by the artist themselves) in existence but, as they’re not catalogued by anyone, they’re very difficult to track down. A new book, Enjoy The Experience edited by Johan Kugelberg, tries it anyway - and does pretty damn well. The book contains the largest collection of American private press vinyl ever amassed, featuring over one thousand cover reproductions from 1958-1992. Kugelberg has devoted his life to artifacts from small music scenes with books including: Vintage Rock T-shirts, True Norwegian Black Metal (we published that one, it’s really good), The Velvet Underground: New York Art, Beauty is in the Street and Punk: An Aesthetic. He was behind reissues of classic records by The Monks, DEVO and Os Mutantes and was the curator of the first Christie's auction sale devoted to Punk in 2008. We had a chat about why bands bothered to make their own records.

Hi Johan. Why did so many artists choose to private press vinyl?

I'm not sure it is that many compared to how many people performed music all over the USA back then. I am pretty sure that what we included in the book is the tip of the iceberg, and that tens of thousands of these private press records exist, but that is really a tiny percentage of the people who made music. These records exist based on the same urge to communicate self-expression that YouTube is full of. Since putting out your own vinyl record is a huge pain in the ass, only the most devoted and/or monomaniacal artists would follow through on this cumbersome task, which come to think of it might be the reason that these records are so often interesting and weird and idiosyncratic.

How much did it set them back? How much did, let's say, 500 12' records cost to press in 60s America?

I'd say that it cost between $1500 and $2000 to press up a LP in an edition between 500 and 1000 copies. Multiply that by ten and you have a rough idea of what that means in 2013 money. It was a huge expense, and a huge commitment to their craft or artistry. And once those boxes of records show up at your house, then an even more grueling task commences: how to distribute them, how to find an audience that wants to buy them. Part of the reason that these records are so hard to find is that I'd guess that most copies of each record would end up sitting in boxes in someone's attic or garage.

By their nature, private press vinyl are rarities, how did you track down so many for the book?

Some of them are rare, usually the ones that have been celebrated and coveted by record collectors, usually the people interested in psychedelic music, and some of these Peter Grudzien, Kenneth Higney, The Shaggs are truly masterpieces.

There are hoards of others though, that are scarce rather than rare. They’re not really worth any money as such, and therefore even harder to find because they don't have the reputation that drives people to collect them. We were lucky that we were friendly with legendary collectors like Paul Major, Geoffrey Weiss, Jack Streitman and Gregg Turkington and that they allowed us access to their records.

Of all the records you discovered when putting together the book, can you pick a few that stand out?

Sure.

The Lu-Wows - "Dream Bubbles"

This couple played all over Southern Illinois and released this sole LP that they sold at their concerts at lounges and bar & grills in 1967 or so. I don’t think the intent of this record is psychedelic but the result is arguably one of the most psychedelic things I've ever heard.

OL Jaggers - "That's Life"

Michael Daley's detailed account of the life and mores of this genius preacher/flim-flam man reads like a bizarro Great Gatsby. His only album that we know features this paralyzingly great take of the Sinatra standard, lyrics rewritten as "That's Life", that's what Jesus said, preach the word, heal the sick, raise up the dead!"

Eugene De Luca - "Twilight Zone"

This is one of the tracks that Paul Major introduced me to 20-plus years ago: The jumpy, cozy homemade lounge music

stands in stark contrast to the baffling and uncanny nature of the lyric: Eugene meets himself as a boy and the two carry

on a conversation outside of space and time and reason.

J Ann C Trio - "Voodoo Doll"

Another Paul Major favorite, and as he is doubtlessly the Mul Pacha of private press music, I will often follow his musical lead. This lounge trio played the Tan-Tar-A resort for years, and the crazy/ spooky Cramps-style vibe of this track combined with the otherworldly babeness of the vocalist has resulted in the LP being cherished and championed not only by connoisseurs of the strange, but also by pretty much anyone I've ever played it for.

Harlem Nocturne - "Fire & Rain"

There are days where there is no musical itch that can service a certain scratch except for that high and lonesome vanity pressing/private press sound: This is really one of the most ethereal and otherworldly ones. This James Taylor cover transcends the middle-of-the-road feel good/ feel deep slop of the original and drops the listener straight into Eraserhead.

Enjoy The Experience is avaliable to order now from Sinecure Books

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